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Racist

I loved Lillie-Mae.  She was my second mother and owned a very special place in my psyche.  She didn’t act crazy and made the best liver and onions in the world.  When we talked she would look at my face, her eyes going deep, trading intelligence with mine.  She must have understood how eyes speak to each other.

 

She nursed me through measles, back before there was a vaccine, piling the covers deep and waiting for the sweat.  Months later, spying the forbidden gloss on my mouth, she handed me a Kleenex and warned me to “take off that color before your Aunt Judy gets home.”  I could tell her anything and could trust her to keep my secret.

 

It was Lillie-Mae who advised Aunt Judy it was time to buy me a training bra, when new and tender nipples responded to all that starch in my blouses.  I’m remembering a time when she loved me well enough to iron pretty ruffled blouses for me to wear, so I could head for school, all that starch and cotton announcing to the world, “Somebody special loves this girl.  Pay attention to her.  No matter what you think, she is worth something.”

 

It’s no wonder that the world wobbled when one day Aunt Judy announced, “Lillie–Mae says you think you are better than she is.”

 

“But I’m not,” I squawked.  “I’ve never said anything like that.  It’s not true.”

 

Judy explained that it was because of my attitude toward her.  “She can tell from the way you talk to her, as if you know more that she does.”

 

Lillie-Mae doesn’t love me anymore, was all I could think.  I must be a monster.

 

I never asked Lillie-Mae what made her decide I wasn’t her sweet girl any more.  It was too much to face.  I just kind of hid inside myself and waited—for what I don’t know.  When would it be safe to come out and ask what I had done that was wrong?

 

In 2012 Cincinnati I attended a meeting designed to heal racial differences.  It seemed simple, merely a scholarly update, especially for me, a person who loved black people just on principle, having so adored the Lillie-Mae of my youth.

 

The meeting leader announced that all white people are racist.  When I corrected her, she insisted that just because I loved my childhood nanny and liked “The Help,” I wasn’t pure of heart.  She said that I appreciated that movie because it reminded me of my days of privilege as a daughter of the south.  I walked out of the meeting—seething.  So much pain.  How could—how can—we live with it all?

 

Last week my Episcopal church worldwide began a year-long journey of addressing our country’s original sin—slavery.  I find myself asking some new and difficult questions:  If our congregation becomes truly diverse, how much will we have to change?  Can I enjoy worship in a style different from what I have always treasured?  Why does it seem that I like black people as long as they behave as if they are white?  Does that make me a racist?  Our country has elected a black president—twice.  The Anglican Communion has chosen a black leader, the Most Reverend Michael J. Curry, and I—I must face my Lillie-Mae quandary.

 

Somewhere in that place where loved ones wait quiet upon the wind, Lillie-Mae wonders when I’ll say, “I’m sorry.”  She has a big hug waiting—just for me.  We are sure to share a good talk, and an even better listen.  Maybe I’ll finally be a big enough girl to hear her own dear story, and give her the hug she has earned, and waited both our lifetimes to wrap her arms around.

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Original Sin

The original sin of our species is and always has been gender bifurcation.  The subtleties of Darwinian selection fashioned two disparate living entities, male and female, each specialized in support of biological imperatives that ultimately defined their genders.  All that evolution required was to perpetuate an extant species through facilitation of ribonucleic acid reproduction.  It ought to be a simple story, but it is unspeakably complex.

 

The natural urge of intelligent creatures is to relate to and love others, especially prominent for mammalia who second-thoughtedly return to their mothers for sustenance beyond once hospitable wombs.  We are hard-wired to reach to others for comfort.  That makes us a lovely, as well as lively, species.  The ways we reach for each other are different, often disparate, creating conflict within and without.  Addressing these mechanisms of thought, speech, titillation, and exchange of fluids could and should fill a book.

 

Like incipiently fertile bird species, human females yearn to build nests.  The hormones that dictate gathering twigs and grass are similar to the ones that suggest a search of www.rent.com.  While the elegant crest of the male Cardinal can be seen feathering a hopeful nest, and it is presumed the human groom will be picking up the U-Haul, while the human mother-to-be pines over lists of infant-togs and day-dreams cuddling baby-at-breast.  For her a nest is where she settles in to make her dreams become the future; For him a nest is what he creates and protects with everything that he is and can become.  Both are equally noble, testament to homo-sapiens survival to this very day.  While the joined goal is the same, there are subtle differences that can lead to strangeness of execution.  Given the inherent complexities of both genders, it’s no wonder that the whole concept of sex is fraught.

 

People are definitely weird about sex.  I need to look no further than my own puberty to illustrate.  When I was twelve, my guardian Aunt Judy arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my cousin Jeanne, eight years my senior, come and officially talk to me about something called birds and bees while my Aunt and Uncle made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was awkward.

 

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at the ready.  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Then nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality shaping only my own discomfiture.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered, “I guess she can pull it up.”

 

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she queried, “How’s it going, y’all?  Ready for some fresh lemonade?”

 

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly at my feet, sidestepping and shillyshallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me—just knew—from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know any of the girls well enough to compare assumptions.

 

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old book depository, where Kennedy was shot, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what was going on.

 

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did had some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy pictured me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been a one-dimensional affair, selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions.  She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

 

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child” being me.  Didn’t she know it was me, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as me inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  That’s what she must have been feeling.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

 

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have put on that pretty pin-up outfit.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked.

 

***

 

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school by writing term papers as payment for my singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips on mine.

 

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his own.  Hesitant, my tongue traced the slit.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

 

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

 

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

 

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

 

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

 

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, imagined, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the front door.

 

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

 

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

 

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing, absolutely nothing.

 

Why are people so conflicted about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something, and for the rest of us to catch on?  The biology and mechanics are easy; it’s the psychology that’s hard—and hopefully the member.  All this would be much simpler if we were a parthenogenic species, but not nearly so much fun.

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Invention

Being an inventor is something anybody can do.  It’s not because you’re smart, or educated; it’s because you pay attention to what the world is telling you.  My father, the genius inventor, confided to me one day when magnanimity got the better of his usual parlor palaver, “If you keep quiet, people think you’re a blooming genius; if you open your mouth they will soon disabuse themselves of that assumption.”

 

My father, Kelsey Martin, sailed through his life paying attention to what went on, and making spectacular note of it.  He parleyed those observations into a lifetime of patents, businesses created to milk profit from those protections, and a devoted following of amazed believers.  He was originally called to be a Methodist preacher/orator, but gave that up as his fascination for electronics bloomed into a cottage industry, Texas style.

 

I have met many of my dad’s boyhood friends.  They knew him when he was just a barefoot boy with considerable cheek.  He was a healthy human in the making.  Nobody called him normal.  That would make him out to be like everybody else.  That he was not.  He was an exception.  His running buddies loved him because he didn’t lord anything over them.  He kept quiet until asked.  He didn’t raise his hand, but knew the answers when called upon.

 

His rise of intellect corresponded with the first appearance of radio in the popular imagination.  He sent off for a crystal, wrapped a wire around a toilet paper roll, and made his own crystal set.  The rest follows.  Making use of the radio-frequency spectrum was going to happen.  He was just there when it did.  That first victory stamped its signature on his incipient psyche, and he didn’t look back.

 

My dad was the one of us who got to address a clean slate.  There was nobody preceding him suggesting that he couldn’t possibly be as good as Dad.  It was his job to confound those who followed, convincing them that what drove him was something only he could fathom.  I have never met a KM descendant whose eyes didn’t go all soft when speaking of his accomplishments.  That act of release, spoken by the eyes, acknowledged by the heart, was the crux of the KM forever-after curse.  “I could never…” colored every reach, every want, every dream.

 

I’m here to tell you that it’s a farce.  Kelsey Martin was bright, but he wasn’t the brightest.  Martin family members are all quick to point out areas where their personal aptitudes echo the great man’s intellectual proclivities.  We all wanted our piece of the KM gene.  This is not unusual.  In fact it’s typical for children of an overachieving father to shrink from their perception of his god-like proportions.

 

This leads to the core of my message: what made Kelsey successful wasn’t as much chromosomal as it was attitudinal.  He was a still pond awaiting a pebble.  I can say this with the clarity of hindsight.  I was mud-puddle to his pond.  He had a gift for sequential abstraction; I was just a girl.  How quickly the milk clabbers!  In spite of being only a girl, I did enjoy a wild ride as designer-inventor.  What must not outlive me is the idea that what I did was anything special.  Anybody’s daughter could have dreamed up my brainchildren.  I intend to prove that with this very honest memoir.

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Legacy

I must have slept last night since I remember a marvelous dream that knitted together what has been a long recurring nightmare into a glowing hopeful masterpiece of remembrance.  Every time I entered this worrisome landscape, I was beset with concerns about components that were mislaid, perhaps lost forever, carefully positioned in some special place and then forgotten.  I needed to locate them and complete some important project, but every visitation only increased the heavy overlay of anxiety.

 

The problem was exacerbated by being strung out over multiple venues.  It took place in many different houses, offices, manufacturing facilities, located across a whole panoply of real estate.  It was while trudging from one location to another last night that I met the key to my dream’s resolution.  Like a vision imported from Gibran, I met her walking upon my path.  There she was, holding in her arms the entirety of my project’s components.  Carefully arranged within the clarity and safety of plastic was every dear part that I had worried near to distraction with my strivings and agonizings.  There they were, with all the tape and glue and wishes and dreams I needed to bring them all together into a great cohesion of finished.

 

The package glowed in her arms.  Were the parts made of gold, or did they only seem that way?  And the woman—was she me at some past juncture?  Younger?  Stronger? Totally assured?  That mane of hair glowed with its own inner light—a lush swirl of blonde—more living than life.  No grisly used-to-be-blond tangle here.  This was the me that used to stalk the halls of the military-industrial complex and beat them at their own trumped-up silly game.  This was the Dorothy that played with tools and machine concepts invented just for the fun of the encounter with the marvels-of-things.  Pay was incidental.

 

OK dream—I can take it from here.  Thank you Dorothy-that-was-me.  I understand.  This all came together when Lane, my son, and Remington, his son, along with Rem’s new wife Emily, gathered with me for lunch at the Longhorn Steak House this past Wednesday.  That meal was the next shoe to drop following my insistence on the read-around of “Aunt Margaret” after the Martin family Thanksgiving repast in Richmond.  It turns out they had been perusing my blog, even discussing “Change Happens.”  They were throwing around references to morethanenoughtruth.com like it was part of family lore.   Emily’s eyes glowed with the recognition of meeting a kindred spirit.  She, as it turns out, likes to write.

 

When my boys were small I made a pact with them.  Any book they read from my personal library became theirs.  It was their way of building their own personal bookshelves.  Before long I had lost every one of my treasured collection of Robert Heinlein to Lane’s gathering bibliophilia.  It was good.  It was very good.  Now I take more pleasure in Lane’s growing home library than I ever did in my own.

 

I learned last night that while in New Orleans, overpaid guys in tight pants where bashing heads together, my family and I were getting to know each other here in Cincinnati.  A visit to Word Press/Site Statistics verified that Emily Valentine Taylor is now following my blog, morethanenoughtruth.com   Praise the Lord, and pass that blooming dictionary!  After last night’s adventure, my dreary never-ending dream of desolation should not be haunting my REM episodes.  I just might get some restorative sleep.

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Spacer Shear

Johnson & Johnson in Sherman, Texas was a great place to work, and I would have dug in for the long haul except for their take on women in engineering.  It was still a time when women were tolerated but belittled at every opportunity.  Shiny tokens like I was, stuck out in every meeting, every task, every conversation.  Management as an elevated concept was supportive, but the male engineers rallied around to tell sexually explicit jokes, voiced and projected for maximum affront, a vociferous dissemination of this brand of problem politics.  Within the hearing of any presumptuous female cohort, a group would coalesce, and garden-variety harassment would begin.  There was rage—sneering, compelling, anxiety-engendering rage.  Fear filled men must needs express their vile, and I must take it—take it or leave.

 

In spite of some worthy achievements, I did take it, but two years at that job were enough.  I went down the street to Texas Instruments-Static Power Division, also at Sherman.  My Texas career had started at Richardson’s TI in 1964 Dallas—showing up and demanding a job, any job.  With two boys, 7 and 3, I had to get a life.  Enough with an-idealized-West-Virginia-mountain-mama-home.  My babies needed food and underpants.  Leaving Carnegie Mellon still owing for second-semester-tuition-room-and-board was an embarrassment, but I had assumed the debt, letting my dad off the hook in order to take final exams.  Now I must earn real money to repay those fines and fees.

 

With only one year of engineering school and no proof of grades, A’s in calculus and analytic geometry were going to do nothing for me.  Texas Instruments hired me as “Assistant Assembler B” making pennies per hour.  Right out of the chute I had to prove myself.  An improved process for dispatching my assembly station was a good start.  An after-hours built wiring board and fixture design that provided for group measuring, cutting, stripping, and soldering the wires got instant attention, a raise and a promotion.  At six weeks I was making twenty-five cents more an hour than grunt start pay.  TI was responsive.  They didn’t sneer at good ideas.  Promotion to tool designer came next, and soon.  While there, carrying Badge Number 15695, I designed all the assembly tooling on the F-111 TFX program.  That was fun!  It was exciting since the TFX (terrain following radar) was the program’s claim to fame.  We were in the storm’s eye.

 

Years passed.  I finished my degree working at a small Dallas company that put up with flexible hours and night school.  Opportunity as a rehire at TI’s Sherman facility and as full engineer didn’t disappoint.  My first day found a big problem that needed solving.  In those days, printed circuit boards were the thing.  They were tight-packed with most diodes mounted vertically.  That led to electrical shorts occurring between diode bodies and copper plated circuits.  Solution?  A custom injection-molded polypropylene washer spaced the diode up off the board to stop that pesky arcing.  The approach was the tried-and-true: after injection molding, the washers in their billions were automatically sliced from their sprues and stored in large trash bags waiting to be united with their designated diodes.

 

My first day at the Sherman facility found me stepping over bags, bags on top of bags, and bags of spacers spilling onto the floor, swept up by tricky breezes to dance away and hide or make of walkways slip-and-trip hazards. Of course the assembly line was stopped, dead and quiet.  The tried-and-true method had turned out to be a bust.  Billions of plastic one-eighth inch diameter spacers stored in plastic bags were static discharge waiting to happen.  Every attempt to recapture the spacers and present them for automatic assembly with their target diodes had failed—miserably.  The charged spacers had minds of their own and resisted handling as they took flight willy-nilly, inspired by their own electromagnetic imperatives.  My reputation as a wise-ass preceded me, and my first assignment was to fix-this-mess.

 

It seemed so obvious.  The spacers, hot from the injection molding machine, already had the perfect holding fixture, needing only the foresight to use it.  The sprue itself (the solidified runner of now excess material that had formed the channel to each individual washer) was every spacer’s perfect holder.  The invention invented itself.  I had only to design a tool that clamped the sprue with its twenty-four precisely located still-attached spacers while a worker inserted twenty-four diodes into the waiting washer holes, and only then pressed a button to automatically separate the twenty-four diode/spacer assemblies from the now superfluous sprue.  It worked.  The work-area was so tight that a single bar blade couldn’t access the washer/sprue attachment points, but twenty-four pointy X-acto Knife Blades, cunningly mounted, did the trick.  A solenoid provided the requisite actuation.  An inclined plane allowed the blades to rise up and slice at just the right angle.  Electrical switches with solenoids controlled “clamp” and “cut.”  Making the switches dual-actuated kept fingers safely out-of-the-way.

 

I was in and on my way.  Of course, they took it away from me.  They always did.  It became its own project as the little machines were fabricated, assembled, and distributed to every TI manufacturing facility.  It got to be too big for its britches.  The worst part of invention is losing control when success runs away with itself, and you get left behind saying, “Duh! What happened?”

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Tomorrow

Crouched beyond the ragged rim of dawn, tomorrow waits

And mornings yet to be envisioned

Silently assemble.

Aeons dimly convene in that sweet silent place,

Listening, waiting, gathering purpose,

Wanting to make of future days

Some greatness, some goodness,

Even some poetry of action.

 

Will that dawn break glorious

Or will it slip-slide-slither in?

Will its herald be tittering bird-calls or

Fission blasts assaulting ears and minds?

Predawn is a time for questions:

What will become of this new day?

Will it distinguish its gathering self

As some great time that men will wonder at

Or will it slog into being an obscure

Past not worth remembering?

 

It’s all there waiting, assembling

Promising, even planning

A great and noble time

When level heads prevail,

When fisticuffs hesitate,

Think twice,

Decide to wait and see.

And hope.

It’s all there crouched as incipient possibility.

 

Will it explode as in the noble hymn:

Break forth O beauteous heavenly light

And usher in the morning?

 

Or not.

 

Perhaps it listens

Wondering what might come

If it takes that first grand step

Into a day of majesty.

 

Will it?

 

It must.

 

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Advent Blessing

Life breaks me open.

The I am must be known.

Too quiet is this solitude.

Thoughts yearn to speak,

but image meaning

in my world alone,

where all in quiet waits,

clear as star straked sky,

all questing answered

in compassionate reply,

snowflakes of forgiveness

to slake the coals of rage.

 

Know me God.  I live.

Conserve what truth is me.

Enfold me. Hold me.

Let anguish steal away,

with blessing part,

for sorrow, my old friend

cannot but be missed.

What will keep me then,

when heartache slips away?

Grief has been my constant,

my anchor, and my stay.

 

And yet…

 

Is there an Advent halo

circling my heart?

Breath of baby Jesus?

Blessings from a byre?

Caress of maiden mother

touching silken brow?

All reach across the aching years

and bid me also laugh and live.

 

It must be bells of Christmas ringing,

tolling out my name,

mythos cast from melt of years,

happiness distilled from tears.

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